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Choosing Whether to Create a Responsive Web or Native App

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A column by Janet M. Six
September 23, 2019

In this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses whether to recommend creating a responsive Web site or application over a native mobile app. While each type of application offers unique benefits, the panel advises UX designers not look at this as an either/or question. Instead, consider the benefits of creating both of these types of applications on a continuum. Clearly, a Web site is necessary at least to enable customers to discover a product.

A UX designer should consider how best to satisfy user needs, relying on a deeper consideration of the usage scenarios for specific types of users. Depending on the contexts of use, users often require that a tool be available on more than one platform. Plus, you must consider business needs throughout the design process.

Our experts also explore the use of adaptive design instead of responsive design and how to employ WebViews within applications.

In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, a panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist at UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX

Q: When do you recommend the use of a responsive Web site over a native mobile app?—from a UXmatters reader

“I don’t,” answers Adrian. “Because, these days, a responsive Web site is pretty much a given. Most users access your Web site on their mobile device at some point—even if an app exists. Even if they spend most of their time on your desktop Web site. Even if your product is an internal business application. With the exception of very rare cases, your Web site needs to work everywhere—not just on the desktop. Otherwise, some of your customers are going to be unhappy and might become confused.”

“I agree with Adrian that, in today’s market, the need for a responsive Web site is a given—regardless of whether an organization offers a mobile app,” replies Pabini. “This is especially true for organizations such as UXmatters that have limited financial resources and, thus, cannot afford to invest in the development of multiple apps, but need their application to work well across all platforms.”

Steven disagrees: “Responsive Web apps? I never suggest those. They’re quick and easy to make, but low performing and hard to maintain.” (See his advice on what Web technologies to choose instead later in this column.)

“A responsive Web application most flexibly accommodates different screen sizes, which makes it easy to maintain,” responds Pabini. “And it is possible to create a highly performant responsive Web site if you use device detection and lazy load only device-appropriate page assets, optimize images, limit the number of fonts, and employ a lightweight responsive framework. When I was designing the UXmatters Web site, I found Tom Barker’s book High Performance Responsive Design: Building Faster Sites Across Devices very helpful.”

Creating the Right App to Meet User and Business Needs

Adrian posits, “The question is: when do you need native mobile apps, as well as a responsive Web site? Whenever it would help your users. Do user research to understand how your users use your service. Would designing and developing multiple applications for different platforms be economically feasible for the business? To determine whether this would be a worthwhile investment, you must understand the company’s business model and the capabilities of the teams delivering the product.

“Can a mobile app provide useful functionality that a Web site cannot? Would a mobile app perform better? Might it perform some particular function better than the Web site could? This is not comprehensive list of considerations! There can’t be a comprehensive list because the factors you must consider depend on the customers, their work context, the capabilities of the business delivering the product, the business model—and many other factors!”

This Choice Is Not a Dichotomy

“For in-depth consideration of this question, read my UXmatters article ‘Mobile Apps: Native, Hybrid, and WebViews,’” suggests Steven. “However, the answer is never a dichotomy, as your question suggests, but a continuum, with a range of options from which you can pick and choose. Plus, it’s rarely an either/or choice. You’ll likely need to choose to deliver several options. Every product requires at least a Web site where customers can discover it, as well as provide other functions around the edges. If you offer a native app, you’ll still need a Web application because it lets users get immediately to work without installing an app and works on any platform, including mobile devices, notebook and desktop computers, smart speakers, smart TVs, and additional devices that are continually coming out.”

Using Other Web Technologies

“Look into developing adaptive Web applications—that is, building different templates for different device classes—instead of just changing the look of pages depending on screen size,” recommends Steven. “My go-to example is The Weather Channel. Go check out how the Web site works on your phone, then on your computer. It’s not just the style that changes, but the functionality. The mobile app leverages accurate location data and operates on the assumption that mobile users want instant information about the weather where they are now. The desktop Web site provides general weather news and displays weather data for an assumed location, but lets the user search for weather details about a different location—either where the user actually is, a location to which the user is planning a trip, or data for someone else’s location. Most of the biggest, most successful Web sites and apps are adaptive, not responsive. Start making the same comparison for other companies’ Web sites, and you’ll see. For example, take a look at Amazon’s Web site.”

“Bear in mind that a responsive Web site is one type of adaptive site,” advises Pabini. “Web technologies also exist on a continuum, depending on whether they offer more limited or richer capabilities. What technology is right for a given organization to implement depends on both user and business needs. In what contexts does the user need to use an application? On what devices? Is consistency across devices important to the user, or is it more important to leverage the unique capabilities of mobile devices?”

Delivering Native Mobile Apps

“If you choose to deliver native mobile apps, you must code those apps for both iOS and Android,” says Steven. “It is important to build native apps if you want to leverage a mobile device’s hardware-control features. For example, if your app must connect via Bluetooth to control an IoT device or needs direct location access or camera access, you need to create a native app. Native apps are awesome, but expensive to build, and sometimes it’s hard to make them do what you want. For example, creating a bulleted list in iOS has traditionally been nearly impossible.”

Leveraging WebViews

“But using WebViews—little bits of Web technology inside an app—can solve many such small issues,” continues Steven. “If your data comes primarily from your own central servers, providing instant updates of status, why bother having an API just to allow the native app to translate the presentation layer and maintain sync with the Web site? Often, it’s best to mix things up and use WebViews. Many big, important products are WebView apps that embed custom Web pages inside a native wrapper. For example, most of Uber is on the Web, and pages update straight from their servers.

“This is not a hybrid app. Avoid turnkey solutions because of performance and code-ownership issues. Create a native app that integrates some Web technologies. This approach meshes well with the adaptive Web sites I described earlier. You should code the WebViews to look just like the native app, but leverage a lot of the functionality—for example, popups and pickers—on the native side so the app acts native.”

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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